Days after a Tampa jury deadlocked on a verdict in the trial of former Orlando guardian Rebecca Fierle, advocates against guardianship abuse say they are disappointed by the mistrial in the case, which sparked a statewide scandal in Florida’s program for court-appointed decision makers.
“It’s just a disheartening turn of events,” said Sam Sugar, founder of the organization Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship. “I’m hopeful that [the state will] put in more effort and more enthusiasm in the retrial. Because at some point, professional guardians have got to be held to account.”
Fierle, 53, was accused of aggravated abuse and neglect of an elderly or disabled adult in the 2019 death of her 75-year-old incapacitated client Steven Stryker. She has pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors say Fierle ordered medical staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital to cap Stryker’s feeding tube — despite warnings that he could choke and die — because she wanted to move him to an assisted living facility where he couldn’t use the tube. But Fierle’s defense attorneys have argued the guardian was making “Herculean efforts” to care for the elderly man and had no intention to harm Stryker, who had been recommended by one doctor for hospice.
Stryker aspirated and died five days after the tube was capped on May 13, 2019, prosecutors said.
A Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation found Fierle also signed a “do not resuscitate” order on Stryker’s behalf against his wishes, leaving St. Joseph’s staffers unable to take lifesaving measures because of the DNR order.
The six-person jury, though, did not hear about the order after a judge ruled to exclude it from the trial.
Fierle’s attorney Tad Yates declined to comment on the mistrial.
Rick Black, director of the Center for Estate Administration Reform, said he believed the jury would acquit Fierle because the prosecution’s case was “extremely shallow,” as it only focused on Stryker’s case.
Fierle, who was appointed as a decision maker over hundreds of other incapacitated people across Florida, has been accused in different investigations of misusing DNRs, ignoring her wards’ wishes and having conflicts of interest.
An audit by the Orange County Comptroller’s office discovered Fierle had improperly billed AdventHealth nearly $4 million over a decade for services she provided to Stryker and 681 other vulnerable patients as a guardian, often double-billing her incapacitated clients for the same services.
Black said he and other advocates have tried to bring other evidence to investigators about Fierle’s other cases and have been “disappointed” to see their efforts rebuffed.
“I hope that we can count on the state to … finally collect more evidence and look to build a stronger case to go after her a second time,” he said.
Attorney General Ashley Moody’s Office of Statewide Prosecution, which represented the state at trial, declined to comment on whether it would bring other evidence into Fierle’s second trial.
“There was a hung jury on the charges related to Mr. Stryker,” said Kylie Mason, a spokesperson for Moody’s office, in a statement. “Our Office of Statewide Prosecution intends on retrying this case.”
Prosecutors have 90 days to bring charges against Fierle for the start of a new trial, said Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University.
“It really comes down to how much do the prosecutors believe in their case, and do they think that they have a real shot of winning the second time around,” Jarvis said.
After a mistrial, defendants who have hired attorneys have to consider their finances and whether they should entertain a plea, Jarvis said.
“During this time, you of course explain to your client, ‘don’t get giddy,’ because there were at least some jurors who were willing to convict you,” he said.
Under state rules, neither side can reach out to the dismissed jurors in a mistrial to find out why they couldn’t agree on a verdict unless an attorney has established before the court that a legal challenge may exist, Jarvis said.
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Orange County Comptroller Phil Diamond, whose office conducted several audits into Fierle, said he was “disappointed” the case would require another trial.
“None of us [from my office] were sitting in that courtroom to hear exactly what the jury would hear,” he said. “That said, I think our investigations all told a very clear story. … They laid out a pattern of misconduct and troubling revelations that affected the care of the most vulnerable among us.”
Diamond said he is proud that his office’s investigations into Fierle led to changes in Florida’s guardianship law. Under a 2020 law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, guardians are now required to get a judge’s approval before signing DNRs on behalf of incapacitated clients.
“I think it was unfortunate that it took Mr. Stryker’s death to shine a light on some of these issues,” he said. “Thankfully, in the meantime, due to our investigations and the work of others, Ms. Fierle was removed as a guardian throughout the state of Florida, and the Legislature has enacted meaningful reforms to help protect the most vulnerable of our population.”
Like Black, Sugar said he was also disappointed by the state’s investigative efforts into Fierle.
“It’s very, very sad,” he said. “The reason it’s sad is because it means that in Florida, somebody can do what she did and never really pay the price for it. … The system is broken. Until the system is fixed, we can just expect more abuses.”